Circumference of Darkness
Twenty-two-year-old Jeannie Reese is a computer wunderkind—and the top architect of next-generation security for the Department of Defense. Her latest brainchild is IRIN, the most powerful surveillance technology ever developed. To date, IRIN has remained ultraclassified and inactive. But on the day a shocking act of terrorism strikes U.S. shores, the presidential order comes to launch Jeannie’s creation against the dark forces behind the attack.
Known only as Phr33k, forty-one-year-old John Fagan is a legendary, reclusive computer hacker. For years he has expertly hidden himself while operating freely within the shadows of the Internet’s background noise. He has remained in complete seclusion despite his infamy as the author of a slew of massive electronic crimes—and despite his long-ago, now eerily prophetic, scenarios of terrorist warfare against America.
Under Jeannie’s direction, IRIN gathers and analyzes endless data—and unearths Phr33k. If she is to stop the next stage of a terror campaign clearly begun years before, Jeannie will have to find the überhacker; but that is only the beginning. For she soon discovers that Phr33k is being held by the leader of a vast terrorist network, who now plans to use this unique genius to conceive and deliver his final, fatal blow: a devastating nationwide wave of unparalleled destruction.
For his part, Phr33k is used to working alone. But all that will have to change.
He has a new challenge, one unlike any he’s faced before: how to provide Jeannie Reese with one outrageous, impossible shot to short-circuit the perfect, unstoppable scheme he so masterfully—and so unwillingly—helped to create.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Jeannie Reese looked out through the tint of the wide conference room window, took a deep breath in, closed her eyes, and exhaled on an eight-count. All hell was breaking loose throughout the building. But here of all places, didn’t business still have to be done?
Her meeting had been interrupted by the news of the attacks on the World Trade Center. Sixteen minutes ago she’d called a ten-minute break, and her audience had scattered like fifth-graders at the bell on the last day of school.
Sixteen wasted minutes, Jeannie thought, and by all evidence you’re the only one on the floor with your wits about you. There’s work to be done, and this act of war only underscores the urgency of that work.
People are dying, yes, I understand. People die every day. If I’m the only one who sees the need to keep my head on straight, so be it. I will not be terrorized. We must focus. Extraordinary times demand extraordinary people.
That word—extraordinary—had been yoked to her for as long as she could remember. By age 10, she had achieved more notoriety as a theoretical heurist than the combined army of Princeton mathematicians they’d deployed to evaluate her. She had been a rare find—a true math prodigy and a computer wunderkind wrapped in a single, recruitable unit.
Before she’d hit puberty, she had proven herself capable of thinking deeper and wider than the best in the field, and a precocious Mozart in the emerging art of differential cryptanalysis. And though she had only achieved legal drinking age last year, it was Jeannie’s charge to design and marshal the government’s eyes and ears in the electronic battle zone, translating what she saw, suspected, or forecast into the language and tactics of warfare.
And she got things done. The day she’d met Don Rumsfeld, a few days after his appointment as Secretary of Defense in the new administration, he’d given her his signature squint and intoned, “And you, young lady, I’m led to understand that you are the grand mistress of the instrumentality.”
Damn right, Rummy.
Today’s presentation was the culmination of six years of work, her grand unified strategy for security in the age of electronic warfare. The broad concepts of TIA, or Total Information Aware- ness, had been floating around since she’d proposed them in her first months with the Agency, and this morning she was to make a strong case for final approval and deployment of the whole shebang. In a nutshell, TIA would link all the US intelligence data, foreign and domestic, into a single cyber-supermind.
At the same time, the proposal would revoke or relax most of the outdated and overliberal privacy protections granted to the burgeoning millions of Internet users. These rights were a treacherous holdover from the days when most online citizens were themselves government entities: it was way past time to tighten the screws.
But things moved so slowly. The glacial pace of government galled her on a daily basis, as did the impassible walls that had been erected between factions of the intelligence community. Tens of billions were being spent on duplicate research. Parallel departments refused to collaborate for fear of getting their lunch eaten by rivals for budget dollars. The result was an almost perfect lack of communication. But TIA would fix that, too.
This morning’s terrorist attack only confirmed that the time had come to circle the wagons and make security our nation’s prime directive. We had long needed to act with authority, to do some unpleasant and unpopular things in order to avoid some truly unthinkable consequences in the future. And today the unthinkable had finally happened.
She shot a signal to Rudy Steinman, her boy Friday, to go into the hall and muster the meeting back to order.
She had a genuinely heavyweight audience today; every intel, counterintel, and DoD department was represented here, along with emissaries from House and Senate subcommittees and senior White House staffers. Rumsfeld himself was downstairs making a similar case to an even higher level of decision-makers.
When the majority had returned and taken their seats, Rudy lowered the lights. As the room quieted, Jeannie picked up her presentation.
“Thank you in advance for your time and attention, everyone. In light of the disaster at the Trade Center, I trust you’ve made the calls you need to make and have cleared yourselves for the next hour or so. If you’re feeling an impulse to run from this room to go and do something about the attack we suffered this morning, let me assure you that by giving me these few minutes, you will be taking direct and immediate action, right here and now. If you get an urgent call, of course I’ll understand.”
Jeannie clicked her remote to display the next slide on the screen behind her.
“In January of 1991, a hacker brought down the telephone system in the five boroughs of New York City. He used seven lines of code and a stolen tech manual from the phone company.” She advanced to a God’s-eye-view graphic of the tristate area, with the critical telco stations circled in red.
“SysAdmins at NYNEX had seen the first signs of something serious coming at 8:30 a.m. Service outages started to appear one after the other, and the automatic countermeasures were failing to keep up. The superstructure of software and hardware charged with managing the most performance-critical phone network in the United States was cracking, and the human managers were proving equally inadequate. The network was coming unraveled as they watched. And everything they did to try to stop it only made things worse.”
On the screen, concentric circles were radiating out around the scattered central office locations, like fallout zones in a nuclear-war training film.
“Within an hour or so they realized something exponential was happening, something working from the inside. Then some big, bad things started to happen.”
Jeannie had learned the details of this incident firsthand. At the tender age of 11, she had topped the government’s short list of suspected hackers. After establishing her innocence they had firmly enlisted her unique expertise in their investigation. It was to be the first of many more collaborations, and the beginning of her life as a federal asset.
She quickly scanned the conference table for full attention. She had it, with the exception of a young Navy man who seemed to be intensely daydreaming about the contents of her blouse. Without a pause in her presentation, she shot from the hip with her laser pointer and nailed him in the left eye.
There, now he’s listening.
“At 10:20 a.m. the New York Stock Exchange lost all contact with the outside world. Ten minutes later, 911 emergency services went down all over the city. At 10:45, the air-traffic-control systems at LaGuardia, Kennedy, and Newark airports began to fall apart, and within minutes they all went blind, deaf, and dumb, having lost all their vital data and voice uplinks. Then, at noon eastern standard time, every phone in the New York City metropolitan area rang once and went stone dead.
“The crisis lasted seven hours. The phones were back by sundown. By then, though, the damage had been done. The stock market had taken an eight-percent correction, triggered by the disruption of tens of thousands of automated computer transactions and the resulting waves of investor panic. The airlines recorded five near-misses over the metropolitan area, four of which they managed to keep out of the papers. Business ground to a halt, and traffic jams clogged the bridges and tunnels. Those of you who were in the city at the time will remember, the police were overwhelmed and emergency services were in disarray. Manhattan was effectively shut down for the day.
“This was not an equipment failure, an innocent glitch, or a legiti- mate software bug. For the first time, we had hard evidence of a major computer sabotage—electronic terrorism. We’d been hit by a logic bomb, and like any other bomb, its only possible purpose was to cause destruction.
“This was a big one, and it really opened our eyes,” Jeannie said. “But there’ve been other attacks before and since, to the power grid, 911 emergency, military installations, government databases, and satellite communications. Most of these crimes were perpetrated through the Internet. We believe that many of them can be attributed to the work of one man.”
The next slide showed a composite line-drawing of a man’s face, Caucasian, perhaps 30 years old. The rendering lacked human detail; it could have been nearly anyone.
“This is all we have of his physical description, and we have very little else. The anonymity of the Internet continues to tie our hands as we endeavor to bring this man and the thousands who aspire to his capabilities to justice. We are ready to address that challenge, and we need your cooperation and support in some critical areas. That’s what we’re here to discuss today.”
As she clicked to the next slide, she noticed that the young man to her right, the breast man, was now looking out the conference room windows. She cleared her throat and waited. He didn’t seem to get the message, but his eyes narrowed a bit.
The ensuing silence in the room put everyone’s attention on him, but he didn’t appear to notice at all. Instead, he rolled his chair back a few inches, and stood slowly. Jeannie followed his gaze.
The Pentagon was not a tall building, but in this wing they had an unobstructed view for several miles. Way out over the western suburbs of DC, a jet was making a wide turn. Dulles and Reagan National were nearby, so the sight should have been nothing at all unusual. But she fixed on it, like the others were beginning to.
It was too far away to pinpoint the class, but it was an airliner, not military, and it looked to be in a landing pattern. Jeannie watched its descending flight path as it came around ninety degrees onto final, with two thin lines of black exhaust now tracing straight back toward the horizon. Then she saw what was wrong. It was going too fast, true, much too fast, but even at this distance and at that speed, looking head-on at what was now clearly a 757, she saw the really obvious flaw in the image of a landing jumbo jet.
For the next few moments it seemed to be suspended in the air, only growing gradually larger and settling gently lower to the ground as it came. It hung over the landscape, the aileron corrections of its pilot causing it to rock left, then smoothly right to wings-level again. And then suddenly, the illusion broke and the plane accelerated to half a thousand miles per hour, struck streetlights cartwheeling in its wake turbulence, the ascending whine of its engines almost but not quite outrun.
The room was silent. There was only one last moment to accept, and surrender.